Kent and I are in a community choir production of the last two movements of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, being performed tonight and next Sunday night at area churches. The choir isn’t great, and neither is the orchestra, but we’d never sung the Ninth and wanted to get in on the action. I thought the timing was especially good, because today is the anniversary of the first performance of the Ninth Symphony in 1824.
Beethoven, as we probably know without being told, is one of the most famous composers of all time, and the one whose music we have all heard, whether we know it or not. The opening notes of the Fifth Symphony, Fur Elise, and the beginning of the choral part of the Ninth, are all nearly brandless for being so familiar (in fact, part of the Fifth was sent into space on the Voyager probes). And anyone who knows anything about Beethoven knows that he was deaf. He wrote the Ninth Symphony when he was completely deaf, and though he was on the platform conducting that first concert, one of his students was actually the conductor and had to turn him around to accept the applause at the end, as Beethoven was still waving his arms to the music in his head. He was a byword at times because he would walk the streets humming the music he heard in his mind and waving his arms.
But his Ninth Symphony is probably the best-known piece of music in the world; in fact, a little-known fact is that the size of CDs (74 minutes) was chosen because some of the people involved wanted to make sure that the whole of the Ninth Symphony would fit on one CD. (I’m sure there were other reasons, too, but that is a very interesting consideration.) It also has the distinction of being the first symphony to include a choir, although others since then, like Mahler and Rachmaninoff, have gone where Beethoven led.
I’m including the translation text of the poem by Schiller that Beethoven used in the Ninth Symphony. They are inspiring, and when taken with the music, must have been an awesome experience that night in 1824.
Let us sing more cheerful songs,
More full of joy!
Joy, bright spark of divinity,
Daughter of Elysium,
Fire-inspired we tread Thy sanctuary.
Thy magic power re-unites
All that custom has divided,
All men become brothers,
Under the sway of thy gentle wings.
Whoever has created
An abiding friendship,
Or has won
A true and loving wife,
All who can call at least one soul theirs,
Join our song of praise;
But those who cannot must creep tearfully
Away from our circle.
All creatures drink of joy
At nature’s breast.
Just and unjust
Alike taste of her gift;
She gave us kisses and the fruit of the vine,
A tried friend to the end.
Even the worm can feel contentment,
And the cherub stands before God!
Gladly, like the heavenly bodies
Which He sent on their courses
Through the splendor of the firmament;
Thus, brothers, you should run your race, like a hero going to victory!
You millions, I embrace you.
This kiss is for all the world!
Brothers, above the starry canopy
There must dwell a loving father.
Do you fall in worship, you millions?
World, do you know your creator?
Seek Him in the heavens;
Above the stars must he dwell.